Editors' Note: This article is part of the Public Square 2014 Summer Series: Conversations on Religious Trends. Read other perspectives from the Progressive Christian community here.
Since I live in what Flannery O'Connor once called "the Christ-haunted South," I cannot travel a mile without seeing a Bible verse splashed on a billboard, framed by a church marquee, or nailed to a tree. Some of these verses are used to sell building supplies and others to save souls, but altogether they argue against any nuanced reading of scripture. What you see is what you get, and if you have to ask questions then you are probably not ready to give your life to God.
One of the first things students learn in my New Testament class is that the Bible did not fall out of the sky as God's gift to the early church. It was the church's creation—a selection of new Greek texts added to a rearrangement of the old Hebrew ones, which made it a library, not a single book—intended to shape the early Christian imagination in ways that would make faith in Jesus Christ a no-brainer.
Or almost a no-brainer. Since the newer collection preserves several heated arguments in the early church along with distinctly different versions of the same stories, it requires some sorting out. At some point you have to decide whether to side with Mark or John (on Jesus' omniscience), Luke or Paul (on how close Paul really was to Jesus' original disciples), Paul or James (on the relative importance of faith and works). Asking questions is essential.
This approach can unsettle some students, as it did the mother of five who said she was going home to put warning stickers in all of her children's Bibles: "Remember this book was written by human beings with agendas."
I believe that. I also believe what I affirmed at my ordination, that "all things necessary for salvation are contained in the Old and New Testaments." This is not to say that I believe the Bible is God's guidebook for life. I don't follow a fraction of the divine commandments in Leviticus, I think the God of Joshua is a monster, and I don't recognize the Jesus in the book of Revelation.
Yet for all this the Bible is essential to my life as a Christian and as a human being. It is my best compendium of all the ways people have sought, seen, heard, and mis-heard the God of Abraham through the years. It is my best reminder that even the most agenda-ridden writers have not been able to bend God to their purposes. Its best stories have seeded my imagination in ways that have taken root, changing the course my life and shifting my view of the world so that there does not seem to be any chance of ever getting bored.
On nights when I cannot sleep, I have Jacob for company. He walks with a limp and flinches at strangers who approach him after dark, but when he tells me about the ladder full of angels I can see it propped against my own piece of sky. Other times, when good people are suffering terrible things and God is nowhere to be found, it is Job's company I seek. He says things to God that I would not dream of saying out loud but since he says them in the Bible I can at least think them.
Mary and Joseph lead me to pay more attention to my dreams, John the Baptist reminds me that the savior you hope for is almost never the savior you get, Mary Magdalene shows me how many kinds of love there are—and Jesus? There's not enough time even to begin. Give to everyone who begs of you, pray for those who persecute you, watch out for the log in your own eye, love your neighbor as yourself. Thanks to him, I cannot even pass someone in the frozen food grocery aisle at the grocery store without seeing a divine messenger.
This brings me to the best thing about the Bible, which is the way that it will not let you settle down between its pages. Pay attention to what is written there and it will keep pushing you out into the world—to look for the rainbow, scoop up the manna, wrestle the angel, seek the lost sheep, give your shirt to the stranger. Open your imagination to the divine stories it tells and the world stands a better chance of becoming a sacred place, if only because you are out there acting like it is.
This is not something you learn in New Testament class—or Bible study either—at least not if you are there to discover the right answers to all your questions. But if you want to know more about the God-haunted seekers who came before you and are willing to take your place among them, then by and by you will decide for yourself what kind of authority the Bible has. My advice is to keep your eye on the angels.